Speaking with Stephen Schneider


While attending the Rothbury Music Festival earlier this month, IT editor Janelle Nanos sat down with Dr. Stephen Schneider, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning climatologist who was running the Think Tank sessions at the festival. Schneider has been talking about climate change since the ’70s, he’s won the MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and has served as an environmental consultant to six presidents. And now that seemingly everyone is (finally) talking “green,” he was just as much a rock star at the festival as the actual rock stars on stage. Nanos spoke with Schneider about hybrid cars, celebrity compost, and how climate change can result in a cultural crisis.

I imagine you often speak at universities and other more formal situations, so this must be a different scene for you. Are you enjoying the concert to far?

I haven’t been to a music festival since I went to hear Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in the ’60s, it’s a completely different scene. But they’re uniting different groups who have never talked to each other. They’ve decided to add a think tank with serious scientists, business leaders, technologists, and media, to talk about stewardship. And then they’re bringing musical acts up on stage to play a few songs, and then we interview them and we get their feelings on the issues.

By getting people together and bringing disparate crowds that wouldn’t normally talk to each other you allow the building of a coalition. And coalitions are what makes politics, and politics is what makes rules, and rules make it possible to solve problems like climate change. They don’t solve themselves.

How has the crowd been responding to the think tank sessions?

I’ve been thrilled at the response of the crowd. I don’t usually give talks where people whoop and holler and have a good time. I can see why these rock stars like to go up there and play. For me it’s usually the nerds talking to the nerds. It was fun to follow up Michael Franti (of Spearhead), so I changed my line to get people engaged and then got back into some more serious stuff. That was really cool, I really enjoyed doing that, it was fun.

But what’s really important is the networking that’s been going on. Michael Kang—used to play with the String Cheese Incident—now plays with Pangea. He was on a panel with me, and I learned that he had taken courses at Berkeley at the Energy and Resources Group, so he really understands this stuff. Having him in the front of the room while we’re having a serious discussion about stewardship and ecological threats makes the audience say, “My god, this rock guy, he knows his stuff.” It makes it more important in their brains. That’s what’s making a difference in the world. Sure it’s very nice to get us together, to change consciousness while we’re here. But what really matters is networking people who are connected. So now we’re getting people connected. I view that as my most important function.

Have you had a chance to actually see any of your rock star panelists perform? 

Yesterday I was in the tent with a bunch of rock stars who I’ve never heard of and I wouldn’t recognize if I tripped on them. I’m the worst gaper on the planet, I don’t know any of these guys. Give me Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, I know every phrase of every song they’ve ever written. But not this group. But it’s great to watch. And these guys, who are pretty self-inflated in some cases, they’re all sorting out their garbage into compost. And they’re doing it alone, they’re not having their underlings do it. That’s important. That says that nobody is above nature. And I thought that was a terrific symbol I was watching in that tent. There were no stars in there, it was everybody doing their thing. You sit there and watch Snoop Dogg compost and that’s pretty good.

This summer, as the nation is facing a gas-price crisis, they’re seeking ways to save money and find alternative transportation sources. What can people do to help reduce their footprint?

There’s no way that anything we do in the world leaves no footprint. So what we try to do is minimize the footprint or offset it by buying carbon offsets. At the moment that’s the best you can do. It would be better if more vehicles were electric or hybrid.

We rented a Prius and drove it from Detroit to come here, and we’ve used less than half of a tank of gas at 46.5 miles per gallon. At the airport, they tried to upgrade us to an SUV because we were a frequent customer.

I said, “It’s not an upgrade to give me a clunker that’s ruining the world. I don’t want that.”

We’re here in Michigan, whose economy is suffering in large part due to the strains on the automotive industry.

What new ideas do American car makers have to adopt to regain success?

The auto industry has fought the production of efficient automobiles. They keep claiming that it’s going to hurt market share and  jobs and profitability. We’ve got a gas price crisis and all of a sudden they’re losing their shirts. It was a predictable crisis that many of us told them would happen 25 years ago. And now they’re victims of their own shortsightedness. But at least they’re bringing out the Chevy Volt and other partially electric vehicles. So finally we’re getting somewhere. You know that they’ll make money with it, and I hope they do. We’re not going to sit here and fight wars to make the world safe for Hummer and SUVs.

National Geographic’s Center for Sustainable Destinations looks at sustainability through the lens of Geotourism. Has your work on sustainability spilled over into tourism in the past?

When I was the Adelaide thinker in residence

two years ago, I wrote a report on how they could do sustainability, and one of my points was doing “Green with Envy” tours. There are a lot of green assets and sustainable wineries in South Australia and I said, “Why don’t you have tourists visit? They’re gorgeous.” But the devil is deeply in the details…You have to really be careful with green tourism.

Here at IT, often talk about the challenges
one faces in the place where travel and sustainability collide. How have you reconciled this idea in your own travels?  

My wife and I were asked to be the scientist on an eco-cruise to Greenland this summer, but we turned it down to talk to the chief elders of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in Nuuk, instead. The elders are in panic, their culture is literally disappearing with the ice right out under their very noses.

And some of their youth are all for it. So they have a cultural crisis.

And that crisis is going to be exacerbated by travel. So they want to talk with us about two things: How serious is climate change? And the answer is that it’s going to dramatically change their lives. The other is what can they do culturally? My personal advice will be: Don’t try to have it all. Don’t tell the kids they have to be you. Allow them to change the culture but also say that there are some fundamental core values that we hope you’ll be willing to do. I think Inuits are going to have to find a compromise. Because nobody in the world is getting their culture eroded out from under them faster than that. And tourism is going to be a main factor.

Photo courtesy of Stanford University


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  1. Gaveideer
    January 4, 2011, 2:07 pm

    my God, i believed you were going to chip in with some certain insight at the end there, not leave it with we leave it to you to decide.